The weather is turning. At home I didn’t notice the wind, but by the time we’d walked all the way to the library our ponytails held only half as much hair as they did when we left. There was an easy remedy: hold the band between your teeth, gather up the loose strands, pull them through the loop a few times, and there — a little off to the side, but good enough. By the time we got home that afternoon we were in much the same shape.
Every morning we have to leave the apartment — later on good days, early on rough ones. A time out before 8 a.m. and we’re out the door in the next fifteen minutes. Outside I can strap them in and keep them quiet and entertained — maybe even asleep. We all seem to drift off out there, Norah and Colin and I, lost in our own heads, watching the world go by. That morning we were out early and the sidewalks were crowded with city-bound commuters headed for the subway. Washed and ironed, they knew where they were headed, whereas that morning I was willing to take my babes anywhere the wind blew us.
“Doing, Mommy? Doing?” This is Norah’s favorite question these days.
“Walking,” I say, from high above her little upturned head. She wants to look at me, but the sun catches her eyes. She keeps turning away, squinting and frustrated. Then, a second attempt: “Doing?”
“I’m walking…and thinking.”
“Mommy’s thinking!” She squeals and kicks her feet in delight in the tiny space reserved for her beneath the baby’s car seat. Colin’s whole body reacts to her. He turns his head, stops sucking the pacifier, and tosses his arms up into the air. We have one of those conversation-starters: a high-tech two-seat stroller where the older kid gets the bottom seat (she could reach out her hand and drag it along the ground if she wanted to) and the baby’s car seat snaps in on the level above, facing the pusher — that’s me.
I thought, that morning, that we should leave the neighborhood. I’d already been scratched, pooped on, and yelled at, and so the idea of just taking off appealed to me. What if, instead of taking the same old right turn out the door, I took a left?
We walked away from 37th Avenue and ventured up toward Broadway as though it had never been done before. Norah continued to ask me what we were doing, apparently confused by all of the new things she could see from her spot down below: row houses, for-sale signs, a gay-pride flag, the Virgin Mary casting her welcoming gaze upon a lit red candle in the front yard. She sucked her thumb, furrowed her brow, and begged me to take her to the library. I had promised I would before we left the apartment, but really just to get her into our contraption of a stroller. There is such a small space for her down there that she has to be totally willing to get in it, which usually means I promise her cookies, “moo-cow” milk, cheerios, the park, the library — whatever it takes to keep the peace, which has been more and more difficult since Colin was born just three months ago.
Yes, the library. I found myself saying it even though I didn’t mean it. Each step was taking us farther away from the library, and I had no intention of letting her out of the stroller until I could release her back into the safety of our living room with the drooping eyelids and slurred speech of a worn-out two year old. At that point my own body would be at its breaking point and ready to flop onto the bed as well.
When we reached Broadway we were officially in the pulsing heart of Elmhurst, rushing forward in a throbbing crowd of pedestrians. There is very little English on this thoroughfare of Queens. This is a first-stop kind of place. It’s been crossed out and rewritten and we were used to seeing it through the dust-covered windows of our little Honda Fit.
“Mommy, this?” Norah points to a storefront, wanting to know what it is.
“It’s a…a phone store.”
“And this is a hardware store.”
“Oh mommy, look! This!”
And there, standing back from the street in the full, startling shade of oaks and sycamores, was the Elmhurst Library.
I turned us off the crowded sidewalk and found the side ramp so that we could roll in. Yay! Norah sang and clapped her hands. We were used to this kind of place, as the Elmhurst library wasn’t all that different from our Jackson Heights library, but there was something to the lighting in these rooms — it seemed to reveal more books, more silence, and perhaps more reading going on. Quickly, I rushed us toward the Cat in the Hat entrance of the children’s section before we could disturb anyone. I breathed a full sigh of relief when I found it empty, but for a few busy librarians; Norah could pull out books, climb on mini-chairs, and read out loud (“Oh, a kitty-cat! Oh, a cow!”).
We glided down the aisles, past the teen section, the pre-teen section, the early-reader section, and got settled at a small table in the back of the room next to a revolving bookshelf of bruised toddler books. Norah was beside herself with happiness as she wiggled over to the shelf and began removing the books from their proper places, exclaiming with each one, “Oh, mommy, this!”
I pretended to be as happy as she was about all of the books, while removing Colin from his comfy seat, shoving a cloth diaper under his chin, and pulling up my shirt. Colin’s mouth opened hungrily and he clung to me, looking like an old man trying to suck the air out of a balloon.
Once settled, I lifted my head and found myself in the spotlight of two dark eyes. He was a skinny, pale, teenage boy and looked as though he’d previously been quite comfortable in his spot on the floor behind the last stack of children’s books. In his hand was an open cell phone and he was held captive by it, leashed up by the ear.
Instantly, I knew he had a secret. At 11:15 AM, he should have been in school. This made him a truant, an escapee, a runaway who needed to be turned in for his own good.
I’ll walk over, whisper sternly in his ear, and send him running, I thought.
But that was the teacher in me, hidden beneath what I was at that moment — a scantily clad, partially exposed, post-partum woman with a toddler on the loose. Colin was dribbling and my shirt would be wet in spots when I stood up. A thin coat of polish was chipping off my toenails and my hair was unwashed. Norah had left the toddler section and was now taking all of the books off of the teen shelves and tossing them on the floor. Someone might think to turn me in as well.
Colin was beginning to drift off, cozy and all full up in my arms, but each time I tried to pull away he’d start to suck harder. Norah was now chasing a little boy who’d come in with his grandmother. The two of them were starting to swipe at each other over books beyond their levels of comprehension. The teenager had wandered off to a more distant corner, and began talking on his phone. He sounded like a good, responsible kid, telling a school aide that he was too sick to go in, or that he had some kind of doctor’s appointment. I imagined him afraid to go to school, to be harassed, to be lonely. The librarian called out, loud enough for all of us in the room to hear, that phone use was not allowed in the library. The kid ignored her and finished up his polite conversation. He insisted on his invisibility.
“No, no, no! Mine!” Norah was getting louder, gearing up for something. “Miiiiiiiiine!” She had a book tucked under one arm, her unhappy face on (pursed lips, chin tucked in, fierce eyebrows), and she’d begun beating her own chest — a threat to the little boy that if he got any closer she’d start beating on his chest.
“Norah! Be nice to the boy,” I called out. “Nice to the boy!”
I pulled my shirt down and dropped Colin into the stroller, rudely and without a burp. I had to turn away for a minute to make sure I was decent, and then I lunged for Norah, who had managed to intimidate both the little boy and his grandmother, neither of whom seemed to speak English. I asked Norah to say she was sorry. Nothing. I told her, I begged her, and then I gave up and said it myself.
“I’m so sorry about this! She’s going through a hard time right now, that’s all. I mean, we all are. She has a new little brother, see?”
The old lady just smiled at me demurely as she pulled the little boy behind her.
“Sorry. Sorry. Norah, say you’re sorry.”
I went to pick her up, and she slapped me in the face and let out a scream that brought all reading to an abrupt halt — heads popped up over books and newspapers. “No! NO!” she began, and continued in a chant that ended in the loudest shriek this library has certainly ever heard. In an instant, she was slapping my face with two hands, curling her fingers to scratch when she could. I spun her around and grabbed her from behind, one arm around her chest and the other around her knees. She found new ways to squirm, new ways to hit. She aimed for my face even though I was behind her now.
“No mommy!” she cried. “I like daddy! I like daddy!”
She collapsed into sobs and turned into me, now for comfort, sucking her thumb, like the baby she still was. With her head tucked under my neck, her long legs hanging down the length of my body, I carried her in my left arm and pushed the stroller with my right. Okay, here we go, I whispered to her. Let’s just get to the door, let’s just get outside. She ignored me, but I knew she was listening.
As we left that children’s room, the librarian nodded to me, Norah, Colin, the contraption-of-a-stroller, the unwashed hair, the chipped nail polish, the tear-stained eyes, and the milk-stained shirt, as if to say, “You are strong.”
I let Norah slide down to her feet and held her hand as we walked down the ramp and back to the sidewalk, at which point she requested to be let back into the stroller. She climbed in easily and curled up on one side, with one hand at her mouth and the other between her knees. I pushed the stroller to the corner and, while waiting for the little walking man on the streetlight to appear, gathered up the loose wisps of her baby hair into a new tail.
Deirdre Faughey is a teacher and writer who lives in Jackson Heights with her family.